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The Rational Optimist – Matt Ridley ****

I have a real problem reviewing a book like this. I’m the sort of person who can listen to a speech by practically any non-extremist politician and think ‘Yes, that makes sense.’ I am quite easily swayed by political argument, and in essence, The Rational Optimist isn’t a science book at all, it is a political polemic that happens to be by a science writer. Even so, it’s interesting enough that I feel it is worth covering here.
The majority of Ridley’s book is pointing out that we really have never had it so good. And it’s a very convincing argument indeed. He points out that those people who look back to pre-industrialization with a fake rosy glow of a time when we lived happy lives, better in tune with nature is just rubbish. The fact is, most people scraped a living and had short (at least on average), nasty lives. Ah, someone is bound to pipe up, that’s because agriculture itself was one technology too many. People were better fed and happier when they were hunter gatherer’s.
Ridley pops this bubble very effectively too. It’s true that hunter gatherers were usually much better fed than subsistence farmers. The problem is that hunter gatherers still suffered from all the untreated illnesses. And they needed a phenomenal amount of space per person. To achieve this, they were in a constant state of war with practically everyone else in sight. Most of them would not make old age even if they survived childhood diseases because of being murdered. (In fact it’s true of all our ‘idyllic’ past – homicide rates were much higher than now.)
We have a grim picture of people being forced into dark satanic slums to feed the industrial machine, but as Ridley also points out, most people moved to the slums because they were better than their living conditions in the country. It was horrible, it was rubbish, but it was better rubbish, and a step on the ladder.
The theme throughout the book is one of rational optimism. He argues than many – most? – thinkers through the ages have been pessimists with disaster always around the corner. For thousands of years, the popular stance has been, ‘Yes, it’s okay now, but soon it will all go wrong.’ Ridley suggests that the reason it doesn’t go wrong is that we invent ourselves out of the problem. The reason we won’t run out of energy or food, for example, is we will find ways around it. And he’s right, despite all the gloom and woe-mongers, on the whole we do.
This is not a Panglossian treatise suggesting we have the best of all possible worlds – Ridley accepts we’ve a long way to go – but simply that we have achieved a much better general standard than our forebears, and there is every chance we will continue to do so. The big driving factor, he suggests, is the interbreeding of ideas, fuelled by trade. As long as you try to do everything yourself, you can never progress very far. Self-sufficiency is a dead end. Try making an iPad out of twigs from your allotment. You need to be able to trade with others, to develop specialists and so on to be able to invent your way out of disasters.
Ridley takes on the big problems of Africa and climate change, not necessarily offering total solutions, but pointing out some of the changes that are needed if we are to address these issues more constructively. He has a media image of being a climate change denier. This isn’t quite fair – he does downplay the impact, but also believes we are much better at coping with slow change – which climate change is – than we are generally given credit for. The final section of the book, which attempts a bit of futurology is very weak in comparison with the rest and doesn’t add a lot to the rest.
Overall, then, the message of the book is encouraging and I’m all in favour of it. At times the way Ridley gets that message across is tedious with statistic after statistic being hurled at us in a barrage, but perhaps he feels he needs to do this, so strong is the underlying ethos that the modern world is terrible, rather than the best we’ve achieved to date.
I confess I very much liked what I read. I can’t give this the full five stars as I don’t see why it is being regarded as a popular science book – but it should be required reading for environmentalists, politicians and professional doom mongers.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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